This week’s Supreme Court decision on affirmative action has me thinking about lines, and how some are harder to see the closer we get to them.
For example, until recently it was pretty clear whether a person was dead or alive; you don’t hear Hamlet equivocating over to be, not to be, or some third choice in between. But as medicine advances the distinction blurs. It was 1968 when we moved the locus of life from the heartbeat to the electrical activity of the brain; these days we’re likelier to define death as “the moment after which we can’t revive you anymore.” But technology being what it is, that moment keeps coming later. Within my lifetime, the once headline-making decision of whether to unplug a loved one has become a common way to say good-bye. (See Janet Radcliffe Richards on the ramifications for organ donors.)
It gets wackier. Even for those of us still breathing unassisted, it’s hard to pin down which symptoms of life distinguish us from other dynamic systems. Is it that we enjoy intake, metabolisms, and exhaust? Process materials? Spawn? The harder we look for the line the fainter it gets, and today there are people (e.g. Jason Silva) who will tell you with a straight face that all the identifiable properties of life are present in the universe, or a city.
These are dark days for binary thinking. Even trusty gender is on more of a sliding scale than we thought. An Olympics cheating scandal (think cross-dressing to medal) led to blood-testing in the 1990s, and turned up such surprising variability in testosterone levels in both sexes that a recent New York Times op-ed argued we should quit testing altogether, and just let athletes “self-define” their sex.
It reminded me of a similar decision made by the U.S. Census, when it gave up asking people to identify with a single race. It continues to struggle with how exactly to categorize us.
I think there’s a lesson in here for us in the knowledge biz. Like most human understanding, these paradigms take root not because they’re valid, but because they’re useful. No sane person would look at a random spray of stars and see a crab, hunter, or bear without a whole lot of coaching. But narrating the randomness made it easier to remember – and so to predict harvest season, or find your way home.
But then we get carried away. From seeing comic strips in the firmament it’s a short step to ascribing gangrene to angry Gods, dead children to angels impatient for their company, and autism to vaccines. And that’s not even counting all the good accidents we like crediting to, well, ourselves. (See former investment trader Nassim Nicholas Taleb on our awesome capacity for self-congratulation.)
Whether assigning credit or blame, we get so eager to rationalize our experience that it’s hard to stop when we want to really figure something out.
I wish we could anticipate that moment of inflection, when a boundary that we mostly made up starts doing more harm than good. We’re probably there already with some of the discipline names in our colleges.
Yet there’s also an irony here, especially when you get back to the question of race. Recent court cases notwithstanding, we can’t prematurely dissolve the borders we’ve defined and go post-racial, seeing each other on an ill-defined sliding scale, however accurate and desirable that would be. Because, as advocates of action research will tell you, the only way to surface problems is by “disaggregating” our data along ethnic lines, insisting on race identification, because otherwise the inequities are invisible. I get that, and agree.
But it’s telling that no grouping seems to work everywhere. For example, in states other than California it may be enough to put all your Asian students into one category, and some of our reform efforts at home follow the national lead. But here that glosses over differences between significant numbers of people: current higher ed delivery works a lot better for Chinese and Japanese students than it does for Hmong and Samoan, for example. In California, progress won’t come from fewer lines and categories, but from more.
So we aren’t yet at that inflection point. But in naming the races, as in naming the constellations, or the criteria for life, or our academic departments, we want to remember what we’re doing, and keep watching for when to rearrange the borders, or simply move on. The day will come when we conclude that socioeconomic status is more meaningful than ethnicity, or that organizing campuses by interdisciplinary problem makes more sense than the current department roster.
Because our groupings are only ever artifice, and the membranes between them porous.